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Literary Devices in The Canterbury Tales

Estates Satire: An estates satire is a genre of writing that was popular in the 14th century. Medieval society consisted of three “estates” (the Clergy, the Nobility, and the Peasantry) that were believed to have been established by God. Traditional estates satires created vivid pictures of society by systematically describing each estate, order, and profession. They would classify the functions and duties of each estate and criticize them for their hypocrisy and failures to live up to the roles that God gave them. Generally estates are presented negatively and shown to pursue wealth, power, and luxury instead of piety and duty. While Chaucer’s tale is an estates satire, his criticisms or praise are not as clear-cut and easy to determine as other works that used the same trope.

Frame Story: A frame story is one in which the narrator creates a fictional story with multiple characters and has each of those characters tell a story within the larger story. In The Canterbury Tales, the frame story is a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral. They stop at an inn where Harry Bailey, the host, challenges them to a story-telling competition: the person who tells the best story will receive a free meal on the way back to London. This frame provides the context for each pilgrim to narrate their own story.

Literary Devices Examples in The Canterbury Tales:

The General Prologue - The General Prologue

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" Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,..."   (The General Prologue - The General Prologue)

Zephyr is the Greco-Roman god for the west wind, one of four directional wind gods in Greco-Roman mythology. He is generally winged, handsome, and young in artistic depictions. The god is generally portrayed as the personification of spring, holding or associated with unripe fruit. “Sweet breath” here refers to a wind commanded by Zephyr. By characterizing this breath as “sweet,” Chaucer creates an implicit connection between Zephyr blowing and spring approaching.

"meekly as a maid..."   (The General Prologue - The Knight)

Here, maid means both young woman and also a young man with the composure to remain chaste. Chaucer uses this simile to show both the Knight’s character and continue to demonstrate his adherence to his chivalric vows. In using this simile to compare the Knight to a chaste man he becomes as meek, or gentle and courteous, as the chaste man, both qualities that are important to the chivalric code.

"Embroidered was he..."   (The General Prologue - The Squire)

This means that the Squire is wearing a tunic with a red and white cross on it. However, the syntax of this description metaphorically “embroiders” the squire himself with “red and white,” making the squire synonymous with the symbol he wears.

"And I said his opinion was right good...."   (The General Prologue - The Monk)

In the beginning of this introduction, the narrator stated that the Monk was a good monk. However, after a description of the Monk's beliefs, he reiterates the statement and follows it with a string of rhetorical questions, each one pointing out the absurdity in the Monk's actions and beliefs. Chaucer's sequencing of lines suggests that this line should be read ironically or sarcastically; the Monk is not progressive but rather defying his calling and vows.

"old and somewhat strict..."   (The General Prologue - The Monk)

Referring to the Rule as old and too strict is ironic since one of the major tenants of being a monk are strictly following ancient scriptures. The positive words in this description suggest that the monk is progressive to throw away these "old" things. However, this irony suggests that the description is actually a biting criticism meant to point out the Monk's hypocrisy.

"as loud as does the chapel bell..."   (The General Prologue - The Monk)

This simile compares the bells on the monk's bridle to the bells in a church in order to suggest that they are of equal importance to the Monk. Notice that the description of the Monk's riding gear gets three lines here while the church only gets one. This could suggest that the Monk's riding is more important to him than his calling.

"he was like a lord or like a pope...."   (The General Prologue - The Friar)

This simile compares the poor ragged clothing of a cloistered monk to the rich attire of the pope or an aristocrat. It demonstrates that the Friar dresses well. Since the cloistered monk is his point of comparison for poor clothing, the comparison also suggests that the Monk who was [previously described] ( did not stand for all monks.

"with the worthy women of the town..."   (The General Prologue - The Friar)

This line serves as a double entendre which suggests that this Friar was intimate with these women both socially and sexually. Notice also that the company he keeps, franklins, rich landowners, and women, must be "worthy," meaning wealthy. This characterization directly goes against the Friar's vow to renounce possessions and material wealth for poverty.

"could make a crown..."   (The General Prologue - The Merchant)

In other words, he was so good with money that he could have been a king of it. Chaucer uses this metaphor to compare the Merchant's activities with those of a king. The Merchant is one of the first characters who seems to fit his vocation as well as the [Knight] (

"burgess..."   (The General Prologue - The Five Guildsmen)

A "Burgess" in Chaucer's time was a person elected to represent their town in the English House of Commons. The English House of Commons is the lower house in Parliament, comparable to our House of Representatives. This metaphor works to emphasize the guild member's stately dress and air of authority.

"Than is the lily ..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

Comparing women to flowers was common in chivalric literature and love poetry. Flowers were symbolic of both chastity and fertility. They represented the blossoming of spring and the delicate, tenuous nature of chastity. In chivalric love poetry and stories, women are often depicted as more fair, or more beautiful than flowers in order to emphasize their idealized chaste nature.

"laurel crowned ..."   (The Knight’s Tale)

In ancient Greece, the laurel wreath was a symbol of victory given to athletes, military leaders, and victors of poetic meets. In the Renaissance, the laurel wreath came to be associated with poetic prowess. Petrarch, the inventor of the sonnet and "father of Humanism," is often depicted with the laurel wreath around his head, marking him as a exemplar poet and scholar.

"These are the cock’s words..."   (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale)

A theme throughout the Nun's Priest's tale is the idea of layers of narration. By putting this controversial idea about women in the mouth of the rooster, the Nuns' Priest is able to contradict the Wife of Bath without personally attacking her tale. He removes blame from himself by allowing his character to narrate. This mimics Chaucer's overall structure in which he is able to critique the church and social institutions by putting controversial opinions and critiques in the mouths of multiple fictional characters.

"My tale is of a cock..."   (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale)

The Nun's Priest begins to grapple with the the concept of predestination and the medieval philosophical question of how evil can exist in a world controlled by God. However, he quickly undermines this revelry by stating that he is only telling the story of a rooster. This claim is clearly undermined by the complexity of the rooster he is talking about and the parallels between this rooster and the court. This is a literary device that allows the Nun's Priest to move back to the light hearted, humorous tone of his story.

"Regal..."   (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale)

The Nun's Priest again juxtaposes the image of Chanticleer the rooster to "clucks" over some corn in the yard, and Chanticleer the "regal" who discusses dream theories and grapples with philosophy. This imagery creates a comedic effect.

"Why should I longer with this tale detain..."   (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale)

Notice the layers of narration occurring within this tale. This is a story that Chanticleer head, which he now tells to Pertelote, which occurs within the Nun's Priest's Tale, which occurs within Chaucer's frame story. In this line, Chanticleer draws attention to the fact that he is narrating this story within a story in order to comically remind the audience what they are listening to. It could also be an implicit mockery of narration in general as it is other people's words coming out of a narrator's mouth.

"We all desire,..."   (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale)

Remember that in the Wife of Bath's Tale, which was narrated by a woman, the man claimed that all women desire to have authority. Here, the Nun's Priest, a man, reverses this claim. In his tale the woman only wants a husband who is strong and can protect her. This reversal demonstrates how these stories exist in a frame: each story presents a different opinion on social customs based on the teller's gender and class. In this way, Chaucer is able to explore many different social ideas circulating in his time period all in one text.

"noble..."   (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale)

The Nun's Priest uses description words such as "noble" and "castle wall" to suggest that the rooster's world is similar to the courtly world. Since the elevated status of the court is brought down to the level of a barnyard, this story is infused with humor and a slight social critique of the courtly world.

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